By Kyle | July 10, 2012
Picture something small and nimble and perfect — a lark, say, or a 90-minute Eric Rohmer “Moral Tales” film — mating with something flabby and ungainly and vast — a Brontosaurus or a Robert Altman picture like “Nashville” — and you’ll have an idea of what it’s like to try to take in Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret,” the 186-minute director’s cut of which is finally available on Blu-Ray today.
An appreciative cinephile audience flowed into the Sunshine Theater on Manhattan’s Houston Street last night to watch the print (or, rather, this being a low-budget affair, a blown-up image of the DVD) where Lonergan introduced the film in the company of some of his collaborators including actors J. Cameron Smith (the director’s wife), Mark Ruffalo and Kieran Culkin.
Shot in 2005 and then stuck for years in quarrels between Lonergan and the studio, Fox Searchlight, it wasn’t released until 2011, when the studio allowed a minimally-promoted 150-minute version to trickle into a few theaters. It nevertheless built a cult following here and especially in the UK, and inspired a Twitter handle of supporters, “#teammargaret.” Lonergan, in introducing the picture, likened that ethereal entity to a spontaneous flock of angels and sounded grateful for the fondness the film has inspired rather than spiteful toward the studio.
What is a film for? If it’s for telling a single perfectly shaped story, then “Margaret” doesn’t succeed. If it is to give you something to think about, “Margaret” has a touch of greatness about it. Centering on the story of an Upper West Side prep school girl who witnesses, and is partially responsible for, a deadly bus accident on Upper Broadway, it also brings in lengthy arguments about Middle East politics (in at least three scenes), Seinfeldian observational comedy (is it pretentious when people yell “Brava” after an opera performance? Yes, because merely applauding is sufficient show of appreciation), long languorous takes in which the movement of pedestrians in the city are set off against operatic music on the soundtrack, the teen’s sexual initiation and the legal and criminal justice tangles of New York City. There are light satirical moments and also a horrific and agonized death sequence.
I think what I noticed more this time around (my original review, with which I now partly disagree, is here) is that the film is really about how our lives, particularly in New York, bleed or leak into one another’s and yet we seem in many cases not to be bonding with each other at all. Perhaps the key line of the movie, toward the end, is high schooler Lisa (Anna Paquin)’s remark that “People don’t relate to each other, they’re totally disconnected,” though we have witnessed all sorts of different kinds of connections, from the sexual to the criminal and the pecuniary.
Lisa’s involvement in that fateful, fatal bus accident leads her on a tangled and frustrating quest to admit her own responsibility and inspire the same admission from a negligent bus driver (Ruffalo). Lonergan is brilliant at showing plausibly and precisely why she can’t obtain anything like satisfaction, much less punishment for her and/or the driver. And yet the entire film proceeds from an unfortunate dramatic sham. We are meant to believe Lisa is the only witness to the accident, which occurs because a bus runs a red light directly in front of two busy grocery stores (Fairway and Citarella) on a sunny weekday afternoon. In reality, the accident would have been witnessed by some of the many customers of the stores flowing out of the store, store employees, the men who unload the groceries on the sidewalk, the delivery boys who hang out there, the people in the cars directly behind the bus, many if not most of the passengers on the bus, people crossing the street or waiting to cross the street at one of the nearby corners, people in the middle of the traffic island, people at the bus stop directly across Broadway on the uptown side, people walking on the sidewalk on the uptown side, and people in the cars in the uptown side, not to mention people looking out their windows and doormen and/or deliverymen at nearby buildings. I have difficulty thinking of any scenario outside of a severe weather situation in which fewer than 50 people would have witnessed this gruesome moment, and so a single person’s false testimony would not much have mattered. I suppose Lisa could have just as easily witnessed the accident on a deserted corner of the Bronx, but what would a nice Upper West Side girl be doing up there? For a movie that’s as New Yorky as this one, getting such a detail so completely wrong matters.
If you can overlook that the movie springs from an event inconceivable or absurd, though, Lonergan offers plenty to consider in his fascinatingly flawed New York ode. Last night he singled out for praise his sound mixers, and their achievement is remarkable. Again and again, Lonergan deploys the Altman verisimilitude with every noise-making object in New York (sirens, construction crews, car alarms) contributing, urgently, to the cacophony. People in restaurants conduct intimate conversations while ignoring that they are within earshot of others conducting trivial ones. Lisa’s father (played by Lonergan) is talking to her about her moral quandary when his wife enters the room, babbling about dinner options. (This scene takes place in L.A., though, which somewhat muddies the message about New York’s being an anti-orchestra of sound pollution.) I somewhat admire the contrived yet necessary nature of studio-film conventions, such as how when two major characters are in a crowded bar, theirs is the only conversation we hear, or how when people say they’re going to the bathroom they never actually use the facilities but instead usually try to climb out the window or splash water on their faces while looking dramatically in the mirror. Lonergan, with near-documentary ruthlessness, refuses to play those games and so makes us see New York in an unaccustomed way: the way it is. In New York movies you rarely see the scaffolding and the Jersey barriers and the fenced-off lanes that Lonergan revels in. Also, he shows Paquin taking a dump. Did we really need to have that?
Not from a story point of view, but as his shapeless monster of a movie stretches out its paws and flicks its spiky tail, you do get a dose of maximum New York, and the pitiless modernity is embodies.
There is much to applaud in Lonergan’s tableau, but I was reminded why I rarely watch director’s cuts of movies: Generally the thing strikes me as simply a baggier version of the same film. For instance, Lonergan does a 360-degree pan around the rooftops of Manhattan, then a couple of minutes later give us another, similar one. More important are the many scenes dealing with Lisa’s sexuality; the movie could have done without them, all of them. I suppose we’re meant to think that her moral problem is causing her to behave, sexually, in ways that are uncharacteristic, but then again teens do have sexual misadventures anyway and we already know she’s distraught from the scenes that deal directly with the fallout from the accident.
If Lonergan had pared the movie down to just the accident-related scenes, with their attendant ironies amid tortured attempts to simply do the right thing for its own sake, I think he might have had something nearly at par with Woody Allen’s masterly “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” with opera’s importance in this film having as much weight as the recurring references to vision in the earlier one. Gone would be the two long high-school debate scenes (which don’t go anywhere), the scenes with Lisa scoring drugs and losing her virginity to a loser (Culkin), the scenes of her flirting with her math teacher (Matt Damon), the scenes of her alienating her best friend, the dorky English teacher (Matthew Broderick) who reads the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem that gives the film its name, and her mother (Smith)’s stage success and strange romance with a dashing Colombian (Jean Reno).
Such a film would have been maybe 90 minutes long, it would have been distilled, and it would have been nearly perfect. Had Searchlight taken this tough-love route, it also would have amounted to a Gordon Lish-ed cut of a Raymond Carver story. That Searchlight released not such a version but a two-and-a-half-hour cut shows, I think, that it bent over backwards to the point of severe spinal trauma to accommodate a gifted artist who could not learn to slay enough of his darlings, if any.